Joshua Clegg Caffery is the author of Traditional Music in Coastal Louisiana: The 1934 Lomax Recordings, published by LSU Press in November 2013. The book provides textual and comparative studies of each song recorded by musicologists John and Alan Lomax during the father-and-son’s research trip through Louisiana’s Cajun country in 1934. Caffery, a native of Franklin, Lousiana, is currently the Alan Lomax Fellow in Folklife Studies at the John W. Kluge Center in the Library of Congress. He recently produced Lomax1934.com, a website where visitors can listen to each of the Lomax recordings. Brian Boyles spoke with Caffery about the book, the website and the author’s work as a musician.
Boyles: Let’s begin with the book. What was your first encounter with the Lomax recordings? As a musician and a scholar, what were your initial impressions?
Caffery: I first became really interested in the recordings when I was in graduate school working in the Archives of Acadian and Creole Folklore. The AAC had, at the time, copies of much of the French material from 1934 and had begun some initial attempts to catalog it beyond the rudimentary cataloging done long ago at the Library of Congress.
I was also playing with the band Feufollet at the time, and we all had an interest in working with older archival material. So the recordings appealed to my scholarly curiosity as well as my artistic interests in adapting older songs. It struck me that we really understood so little about so much of the material. In some cases, transcriptions had been done and short headnotes had been written as liners in re-packagings of the material over the years. Barry Ancelet is really the only person who had made much headway with the collection, and he encouraged me to look into it more deeply. At the same time, as a musician and a songwriter, I was drawn to the collection because it was just so different and wild. The harmonies, structures, and narratives of the songs were older and in many cases more elaborate than the material preserved by the early ethnic recording industry of the 1920s and 1930s. To me, artistically, these recordings represented an older strain of song that I found tremendously inspiring.
You mention Barry Jean Ancelet [a Cajun folklorist and professor at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette]. In the book you call your study “a concerted effort to extend the efforts of Ancelet and others and address the whole corpus in all of its rambling complexity.” Clearly the work of Ancelet, Carl Brasseaux and others from an earlier generation laid the groundwork for contemporary understanding of music and folkways in coastal Louisiana. How have those scholars received your research?
I really admire Carl Brasseaux, and I’m influenced in particular by his work on the plurality of francophone culture and history in the area, but I’m not sure if he’s aware of the book or if he has any opinion about it.
Barry has been very encouraging and supportive, which is great because one of the goals I made for myself at the outset was to build something that that particular dude would appreciate. One of my fondest memories of doing this work was meeting with Barry to work together on some of the more stubborn transcriptions. The most exciting thing for me about research, I’ve come to realize, is that moment when something totally inscrutable begins to make sense. And that’s what scholars are supposed to do, right: make sense of the inscrutable? The act of transcribing these wild old songs on these hissing old discs, I think, contained that process in miniature. And that glimpse of first understanding can be epiphanic. I imagine it’s like what an ornithologist might experience upon identifying some rare fowl, or what a paleontologist might feel piecing together the wing of pteranodon. Having the chance to share those moments of discovery with Barry is something I won’t soon forget.
I’ve been particularly happy to hear feedback from musicians who have already used the book to explore the music. I really wanted to create something that could be a tool for young musicians, and that seems to be happening. At its core, it’s a song book, and the best compliment I could receive is to see people singing from it.
To me, part of the beauty of the Lomax recordings are the questions they spark—why this song? How did the musicians perceive the recording process? Where did they go home to after they left the Lomaxes? There are mysteries all around each document. Your book explores the musical and non-musical context for these recordings. As an example, can you walk us through how you researched and wrote about Wilson “Stavin Chain” Jones and his ensemble? According to the book, these three songs are their only known recordings.
Unfortunately, the Lomaxes kept very little in the way of field notes at this time. Oftentimes, the only information we have about the performer is a short audio note at the end of a performance and then the notes that they may or may not have made on the disc sleeves, some of which have been preserved. Sometimes, though not on all occasions, they recorded the name of the performers. Although identifying and researching the songs was my priority, I did begin the work of providing more context about the performers.
In the case of Stavin’ Chain (Wilson Jones) and his ensemble, I wasn’t able to find terribly much, though I did find public records that may be linked to them. The best clue I found for Jones was his autobiographical song about being in Camp Pike, a cantonment for African-American soldiers that became somewhat notorious during World War I. As it turns out, Big Bill Broonzy was also there. These shreds start to illuminate the possible story of this fellow and they remind us that the music here wasn’t necessarily always isolated from the rest of the world. Because of the scope of the book, I wasn’t able to dig as deeply as I would have liked into each performer, but I hope that I’ve at least eased the door ajar a bit and cleared the way for future researchers. In fact, I was just talking to Ray Brassieur, the anthropologist [at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette], who studies Native American cultures of the area, and he believes that the fiddler listed by the Lomaxes as Charles Gobert may have been of partially Attakapas-Ishak descent. Gobert and Amos [the accompanying banjoist’s name] are common surnames in the community of Attakapas-Ishak descendants, apparently. Ray may have even found a grandson of Gobert. So my hope is that the work I’ve done will lead to more research and discovery because, certainly, there are many mysteries that remain.
I was struck by the diversity of musical forms and performers. What does this reflect about the larger society in coastal Louisiana at the time? This was also the period of the Depression and Huey Long. Are there economical influences evident in any of these recordings/stories? You write that John Lomax gave relatively short shrift to Cajun music, perhaps because it was new, or even inauthentic, perhaps in part because there were white bands essentially imitating African-American style. Do you see similar cultural prejudices today that hinder proper appreciation of popular forms in contemporary Louisiana?
Well, I think that you’ve hit on the crucial rumination. It’s a remarkable thing that the great American folksong collectors of the 20th century weren’t particularly interested, at least initially, in what is now considered the signature folk music of the region. What they perceived to be commercialized, hybridized and popular often presents today as folkloric, ethnically-essentialized and endangered. On the one hand, it’s tempting to criticize the Lomaxes for being on a romantic quest for forgotten lore and ignoring the emergent culture around them. On the other hand, it’s worth wondering whether our current concept of a dyadic Cajun/Creole cultural past is any less romantic. As someone who doesn’t consider “romantic” a pejorative term, let me say that I think we need to glory in all of these stories: archaic European folksongs about princesses and castles as well as indigenous Franco-African jigs and breakdowns.
Considering the perspective of the Lomaxes, as you suggest, can help sharpen our understanding about how the indigenous music of the area might continue to change and adapt. I’m particularly interested in the very real linguistic predicament of Cajun music. Without native speakers of Cajun French, will Cajun music persist and evolve as a vernacular music on the lyrical level, or will the francophone song body become the sole province of educated middle and upper-class preservationists and intellectuals? Will it become the local Latin of a cultural elite? Might the music continue to evolve but with a predominantly English repertoire, as has been the case with zydeco? I don’t have the answer to those questions, and I won’t presume to speculate about the desirability of either potential outcome, but thinking about the Lomax trip and how things have changed can certainly help us begin to anticipate the intriguing future just around the corner.
I appreciated the simple layout and organization of the site, traits that are sometimes rare in digital humanities projects. Was the site developed as you did research for the book or is this something you created as a supplement once the writing was complete?
Thanks! Yes, DH often equals TMI. I think there’s a natural desire to overshare, particularly in the realm of metadata. I have the good fortune to have much of the metadata stored in the book and on the Library of Congress site. So my focus was on making a conduit for the audio that was as transparent and accessible as possible. As part of my research, I built a large digital database, and essentially I distilled that into the site after the book was released.
You write that this work “provides firmer footing for future scholarship concerning traditional music in Louisiana.” We seem to be experiencing renewed interest in that music. What directions are you heading in with your own research? And as a musician?
Well, I’m in the process of producing a CD for Valcour Records in which we’re working with contemporary musicians to re-record songs from 1934. Joel Savoy at Valcour is an old friend and bandmate, and we–along with some other musician friends–performed a number of the tunes for a couple of book release events. He suggested we make a CD, and so that’s what we’ve been up to, and we’ve been having a blast with it. We originally intended to have a small group perform all the songs, but it’s mushroomed a bit, and we now have quite a cast of musical characters-Marc Broussard, Tiff Lamson from Givers, Mike Doucet, Zach Richard, Dirk Powell, to name a few-and we’re planning a release to coincide with the 2015 centennial of Alan Lomax’s birth.
This will likely be my last work specifically on the Lomaxes for a while, though I’m contemplating a book about Louisiana country blues traditions that would draw on field recordings made by the Lomaxes and others. I also recently completed a book of poetry and lyrics based on Louisiana song traditions, and I’m hoping to make an audio companion of some sort to accompany its release.